Don’t Look Now (1973) – Film Review
*I attended this special cinema screening as one of the London based film influencers for the Reclaim the Frame project by Birds’ Eye View
Whether this was a conscious decision or a successful co-incidence but having the cinematic release of the 4K restoration of the timeless classic, Don’t Look Now on the same release date as Ari Aster’s Midsommar was cinema magic at its best!
Watching the two films back to back, the inevitable comparisons could be drawn easily and even from the similarity of the weather based opening scenes of the two films and the theme of grief, the influence of Don’t Look Now on Midsommar, as a predecessor, is obvious.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Bloomsbury with a light drizzle of rain ahead of the Reclaim the Frame screening of the 4K restored version of Don’t Look Now. The damp weather was probably fitting given the film’s location in Venice, which is surrounded by water. It was one of those films of which I had a vague recollection of having watched, many years ago as a teenager, but the striking imagery of ‘that’ red coat remained one of the key features remembered about the film.
Director Nicolas Roeg’s vision within Don’t Look Now is exemplary and it is rich with symbolism. The direction itself is subtle but foreboding with lots of foreshadowing that may not be instantly apparent on a first viewing. However, the chemistry between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, as the two lead characters, does not diminish and is simply wonderful to watch on the big screen!
Fortunately, as part of the Reclaim the Frame screening, an introductory discussion had occurred, with a further Q&A, of the themes interwoven within the film and its multi-faceted appeal, which assisted with the navigation through the film.
The film had been adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier and remains faithful to the book for the most part, as indicated at the screening by Dr Helen Taylor, author of the Daphne du Maurier Companion, but of course artistic licence prevails! Further discussions with insights from film-poet Be Manzini also drew out the concepts of vision and seeing beyond the limitations of the physicality contained within the scenes in Don’t Look Now.
From the insights provided by Dr Helen Taylor, du Maurier seemed to be obsessed by ageing and the concept of dying which manifests itself perhaps by the choosing of Venice as the location setting, with graves by water unveiled in the film and perhaps even the title alludes to this.
Indeed, the words ‘Don’t Look Now’ are only uttered once within the film and appear to convey that essence of inner vision and premonitions, the concept of danger and perhaps that otherworldly element.
The film is dialogue driven and slow paced but quite frankly not a lot of action happens beyond the shocking opening scene of the drowning of the daughter, Christine, and it does not need to in a film this rich with symbolism! Roeg’s direction captivates from the start and virtually every character’s movements in the unfolding scenes seem symbolic!
Early on, it is apparent that the concept of seeing through glass and mirrors is a recurring theme; the glass that Donald Sutherland’s character, John, is drinking from cracks moments before he has the sixth sense sensation of the tragedy to arrive, glass breaks before his death defying fall in a church, his wife, Laura, initially speaks with two sisters, one of whom is blind but psychic, by way of mirrors in a bathroom. Again, in a later scene when Laura faints at a dinner table, there is a glass broken as a result.
This emphasis on glass and mirrors may also have been connected to that trope of being willing or unwilling to embrace the notion of second sight given that the eyes are meant to be the mirrors to the soul after all! Overall, it adds to the general feel of unease and foreboding for the audience throughout the film!
Laura embraces this aspect of the psychic realm and premonitions, which perhaps assists her to cope with the grief following the loss of Christine. However, further to her encounter with the two sisters, Wendy and Heather, who also represent that underlying theme of duality, John is unwilling to believe and acknowledge his own sixth sense.
John’s words are ‘seeing is believing’ but he continues to see the two sisters in many locations whilst Laura does not. Conversely, this may also be illustrative of the gender based approach to dealing with grief and psychic abilities as explored within the film. John, it appears, has been struggling on both of those fronts which is ultimately to his detriment!
Roeg is certainly a master of suspense in these scenes and ratchets up this dramatic tension; there is even the lingering of the camera on a sign that stated, ‘Venice in Peril!’ Could that sign be a future warning?
As for the cinematography, it is extremely impressive! There are stunning landscape shots of the canals, emphasised by the 4K restoration, but also shots of the unpleasant aspects of the sewers and underground tunnels of Venice with the majority of the film shot in quite sombre hues. That is aside from the omnipresent colour red which pervades the film, from Laura’s red boots to the red blood like liquid seeping from an initial photograph of the church to be restored and even the red coat of the mysterious child like figure creepily wandering around the canals. Again, this could be connected to that overwhelming sensation of danger that permeates each scene.
Heather, the psychic sister, forewarned John that Christine’s message from beyond the grave indicated that he was in danger and must leave Venice. This also heightens the suspense felt throughout the film! Furthermore, this foundation of the sense of danger is strengthened by the background threat of a serial killer, who is killing women by the canals.
Despite these warnings of danger, the film still has that sense of beauty and tranquility reverberating throughout! This beauty can be detected from the close up shots of the canals and their serene nature and also from the love between John and Laura especially evident in ‘that’ bedroom scene. Equally within the scenes of the restoration of the captivating Saint Nicolas’ church, which initially brings John and Laura to Venice, that notion of beauty continues.
The film’s elliptical structure means that, at times, it is not obvious as to how much time has elapsed between events which adds to the disconcerting nature of the film. This seems to be a deliberate move on Roeg’s part in order to have the audience question that notion of stability, rigid structures and the institutions constructed to progress through life.
Indeed, when John believes that he has witnessed his wife, Laura, on a funeral gondola with the two sisters soon after her departure to England to tend to their injured son at boarding school, it is unclear as to when that scene on the death-like gondola has actually occurred!
Despite his earlier claim that ‘seeing is believing’ John involved the police, who are understanding, believing that his wife has been kidnapped. However, this vision is connected to his sixth sense instead and is therefore a manifestation of his second sight. It is however John’s failure to accept this inner vision that encourages his own blindness to the surrounding forces at play.
Fortunately, the camera angles employed assist with this sensation of spookiness with hand held movements and there is an unsteadiness as the camera travels along corridors and also when capturing the heights within the church. These scenes within the film are pioneering and were reminiscent of the later films released such as The Omen and The Shining which also appear to have been influenced by this innovative work.
For me, there is also a mesmerising scene where John walked up a spiral staircase, and I do love a spiral staircase in films, which ties into the rhythm of the film and its directional flow as the characters circle each other through their interaction and interweaving within scenes. Plus, the jump cuts used within the film just work and are not unnecessary to create that suspense and the fabric of the sinister activities occurring beneath the surface.
The sound techniques utilised are also very effective in adding to that atmospheric spookiness as well with silent scenes along the canal where footsteps solely can be heard or the sudden rustle of pigeons in flight which, at times, were more terrifying than any jump scare seen in modern films!
Even innocuous scenes of archaeological work undertaken in a church contain hidden meaning such as a piece of mosaic dropping from the restoration work, John suffered a fall at such moment, and it appeared that the figure of Christ was weeping! The tears seem to link to du Maurier’s association with water and the religious tropes are subtle with an almost clairvoyant, imposing bishop. Are such tears also an indication of a sadness that is yet to be unveiled?
The question does arise as to the reason for John’s motivation to pursue this mystery figure in red, which appeared in that initial photo of the church and in several canal locations in Venice. Does he, despite his protestations to the contrary and inability to articulate his emotions, believe that it may be his dead daughter Christine who was uncannily wearing a red coat, which coat according to Dr Helen Taylor’s insights does not feature in the book, in the scene of her drowning? Is it this driver that leads him to lock himself in to the gated tunnels in the final scenes where he sighted the mysterious character?
There are so many questions that remain unanswered with no possible resolution as the blood gushed from John’s neck, again there is that red imagery, in the penultimate scenes whilst Laura looked on helplessly! At that moment, I found myself silently screaming the film’s title, ‘Don’t Look Now’ at the screen towards Laura, so skilful is Roeg’s direction.
The flashbacks serve as that final premonition with the scenes of the various clues embedded within the film, foretelling of this ultimate tragedy, re-played! It is a rather frustrating moment as the audience is likely to have predicted his demise since that earlier accident in the church and due to the other signs that the film revealed but it is still a surprising conclusion for John and Dr Helen Taylor revealed that the book’s ending concludes on a slightly different note.
The scene of Laura on that funeral gondola with the two sisters replays and it is now put in to context as a future scene with devastatingly, chilling effect but is simultaneously serene and romantic. A quote from the film that was instantly resurrected in my mind, at that point, was one uttered by the blind psychic Heather, upon realising that John was also gifted with the second sight. Such psychic ability was described by Heather as ‘a gift but also a curse’. It struck me that John’s blindness to accept his psychic ability had unfortunately resulted in such second sight’s role being the latter, a curse, in his life.
As the final scenes unfolded, I certainly needed a few moments to compose myself in the cinema after being kept on the edge of my seat by this compelling film! It is certainly a film that could be re-watched several times, in the cinema, if possible, with different interpretations gleaned with each viewing!
As there has been this recent 4K restoration, the film is being released again on DVD and I would certainly recommend re-visiting Roeg’s vision in Venice in Don’t Look Now, it is worth it!
The 4K ultra high definition restoration of Don’t Look Now will be released in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD on 29 July 2019